Where conversations with artists can lead…
I saw a television scene the other day that piqued my interest as a writer of profiles.
I don’t know if you’ve checked out “The Crown,” on Netflix, dramatizing Queen Elizabeth II’s life as a young and rather surprised sovereign, after her father George VI died of lung cancer. (In those days, doctors danced around the diagnosis of kings, preferring not to suggest that His Majesty may have terminal cancer; so Princess Elizabeth was puttering around Africa with her handsome Prince Philip when the news broke. She had to hurry home in inappropriate attire, being met at the plane by a staffer with a black mourning dress in tow, before changing and descending the metal stairs to the tarmac.)
The early part of Elizabeth’s reign involved Winston Churchill, who was still clinging to power and glory in spite of younger men’s efforts to oust him. So there’s a scene in which the painter Graham Sutherland works with Churchill on a birthday portrait commissioned by Parliament. Churchill is ambivalent and somewhat suspicious of the process. “Will we be engaging in flattery or reality?” he asks. “Are you going to paint me as a cherub or a bulldog?” He reminds Sutherland, “For accuracy, we have the camera. Painting is the higher art.”
Sutherland respectfully agrees, and also points out something really important: “One has to turn a blind eye to so much of oneself just to get through life.” A painter or profiler can gently restore the sight.
They get to talking about Churchill’s own water colour painting, which he did for a hobby, and Sutherland observes that the great Prime Minister goes back repeatedly to the same subject, of a pond near his house. Why is that? Sutherland asks out of curiosity.
“It’s such a technical challenge, it eludes me,” Churchill says.
“Perhaps you elude yourself, sir,” Sutherland offers. “That’s why (the pond paintings) are more revealing than a self-portrait. The framing itself tells me that you wanted us to see something deep down in the water. Terrible despair, hiding like a leviathan or a sea monster.”
Churchill disagrees – “perhaps that says more about you than me” — and they move along to discussing their children. Sutherland says quietly that his son died at two months of age. “You have five children sir?” he asks. “Four,” the Prime Minister says. “My daughter Marigold died at two years, nine months. Septicemia….We bought Chartwell a year after she died. That was when I put in – the pond.” The look on Churchill’s face as he realizes that the pond, indeed, contains his grief will likely earn actor John Lithgow award nominations.
For me, as a writer of profiles, this scene is a wonderful illustration of how illuminating the interaction between artist and subject can be. I’ve seen this ‘A ha’ moment take place in people I’m interviewing even when, like Sutherland, I wasn’t particularly aiming for anything; I just happened to ask a question that got them thinking. In the Churchill scene, it is a revelation about grief, but more often, in my experience, it is a sudden understanding of one’s significance. We walk around with a story about ourselves that is often shaped unconsciously by habits of self-criticism. A portraitist can brighten – or in Churchill’s case, deepen – the tale.